Sparrow Spotting

As the numbers of passing warblers and shorebirds begin to dwindle, before the wintering geese and finches arrive in force, sparrow season peaks in southern New York. October is prime time for seeking out these sneaky, streaky, subtle birds in the tangled vegetation of thickets and wetlands. I kicked off my mid-month weekend with a Saturday morning trip to Plumb Beach, now an annual tradition. I was greeted by Song and Savannah Sparrows along the edge of the trails from the parking lot, along with a handful of Monarch Butterflies feeding on wildflowers. The primary quarry for the outing, however, was hiding in the marsh itself. My search led me to the far eastern edge of the property where a tidal creek empties into the inlet. When I reached the outflow, I found some local birders and an assemblage of furtive shadows flitting through the swaying grasses. A handful of the visible individuals could be confidently identified as Nelson’s Sparrows, the main reason I visit Plumb Beach with any consistency.

There were over half a dozen sparrows scrambling about through the area, and many provided surprisingly good looks. Unfortunately, clear views are not always enough to sort Nelson’s Sparrows from the increasingly common hybrid offspring that result from their pairing with Saltmarsh Sparrows. Authorities previously considered these two populations as the same species, and it seems that the birds may still. I photographed a number of tweeners with a confusing mix of characteristics, including breast streaking that was blurry enough for Nelson’s but extensive enough for Saltmarsh. I’m glad that eBird has an option for reporting these unidentifiable members of the complex.

I met up with Miriam later in the day, and we took a brief jaunt over to Hofstra University. Although Miriam spends plenty of time studying on her campus, our goals for the afternoon were not so scholarly. I’d heard word of a Clay-colored Sparrow that was seen in a mixed species flock near the field hockey stadium. Since I needed it for the year and she needed it for her life list, we decided to make chase. I picked up a promising call note in the ornamental trees along the eastern fence, but Miriam was the first to get a visual. The sleepy sparrow was nestled against the trunk in some dense branches, chirping intermittently as it gradually drifted off. The bird looked bright-eyed and healthy when it was alert, but it seemed like it was just plumb tuckered out. Super adorable. We left the little visitor to its nap and took our leave.

I was out and about again on Sunday, and I followed another Clay-colored report straight to another Clay-colored, this one sighted by Mike Z at the Jones Beach hedgerow. A local Scout troop was camping at the Coast Guard Station, and there were still some hungry mosquitos around, but avian activity was fairly low. I scanned the gulls at the West End 2 lot on my way out, pausing to photograph a cluster of Lesser Black-backs among the loafing flock of more common species.

The winds off the ocean were decently strong despite a subpar direction of origin, so I decided to put in a few hours seawatching at Robert Moses. I was joined by Pat L for a decent chunk of my vigil, and I was happy with the results of my efforts. Concentrations of gannets and scoters are starting to increase again, and we spied a few pods of Bottlenose Dolphins moving through the surf. I noticed a distant Great Cormorant flying with a Double-crest, and Pat pointed out a shearwater on the horizon that was too far to confirm our suspicions that it was a Cory’s. Maybe not the most spectacular seawatch ever, but a perfectly pleasant time staring at the edge of the water.

Landbird action remained notably unimpressive throughout the morning. I did a quick circuit of relatively underbirded spots on my way back west, just to see if there was anything noteworthy lurking about on this quiet day. Captree Island hosted some lazy egrets, and the Jones Tower Peregrines were in position when I passed in both directions. I ended up inadvertently flushing a large flock of Green-winged Teal off the hidden pools at Tobay Beach’s JFK Sanctuary, and their take-off startled the roosting night-herons into the air. A Peregrine appeared and repeatedly stooped into the fray, making me feel even worse about my accidental disturbance, but it missed its mark on all attempts. The waterfowl eventually settled out of sight, and the falcon continued on to try its luck elsewhere.

These lazy, easygoing fall weekends are a real treat during the early portion of the school year. The cycle of migration marks the passage of time even as the work weeks begin to blur together. Taking the time to get out and explore my local patches helps to keep me refreshed and sharp so I’m prepared to do my best for my students and coworkers. Free time well-spent is a valuable thing, in my opinion, at least!

Year List Update, October 15 – 396 Species (+ Nelson’s Sparrow, Clay-colored Sparrow)

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California Dreamin’

I welcome any excuse to take a break from the regular routine and get away for a little while. It’s even better when the invitation to escape includes cause for celebration. Earlier this year, I received a “save the date” card from Kevin, my brother-in-arms from some of my favorite college escapades, and his new fiancée Hannah, a fellow Cornell biology major. I was thrilled to hear that they were finally getting married, and even more excited to learn that their union was scheduled for a Saturday over an extended weekend. The planned date afforded me the chance to travel for the wedding, and a California mini-vacation turned out to be exactly what I needed a month into the school year. I flew out Friday night and secured lodging with my old friends Dylan, Aly, and Christian. The entire trip was chock full of fun and fond memories from beginning to end. My highest highlights were focused around merriment, entertainment, and refreshment, but this ain’t that kind of blog, bruv. What kind of birder would I be if I didn’t have an eye out for West Coast widllife?

I wanted to maximize the time spent in the company of my buddies, but the call of the wild is strong and my circadian rhythm was still set to East Coast Time. While my friends dozed in the early hours of the day, I found myself waking up before sunrise. Rather than sit around the house and wait for them to rise, I decided to scratch my exploration itch and get back in time for brunch. On my first morning, I was awakened by the call of a California Towhee just outside my window. When I stepped outside to search the yard, I got my first visual of a Golden State bird since last summer: a Yellow-billed Magpie that flew over the house. It’s only fitting that I was greeted by the most Californian of all birds, a true endemic. When I strolled down the streets of Fair Oaks to nearby Phoenix Park, I found dozens of the dapper corvids strutting their stuff on the lawn.

As much as I love racking up lifers on expeditions to new locations, there’s something special about getting reacquainted with familiar faces when you return to a place you enjoyed. It’s almost as nice as reuniting with human friends…almost! I found a good mix of local specialties like Oak Titmouse, Acorn and Nuttall’s Woodpeckers, and California Scrub-Jay along with western counterparts of bluebird, phoebe, and goldfinch.

I moved on to Mississippi Bar along the banks of the American River, where I added Spotted Towhee and Bewick’s Wren to the day list. Flocks of twittering Bushtits swirled through the foliage, and Anna’s Hummingbirds darted around at high speed. I eventually received a notification that the others were out of bed, so I began the trek back to base. I passed a feeding flock of turkeys and an adorable puddle of bathing songbirds along the way, and the meal I returned for did not disappoint. I put my binoculars aside for the day when I suited up for the ceremony, which was held at the picturesque Rome Valley Vineyards. I couldn’t help noticing some Band-tailed Pigeons and other species flying around from my vantage point atop this scenic hill, but once the event got started the birds were the furthest thing from my mind. It was a beautiful night of celebration, complete with plenty of jokes, reminiscence, tasty food and wine. I’m thankful that Kevin and Hannah included me in their special day. It was absolutely worth the trip!

Despite staying up late to keep the party going, my internal alarm clock woke me up at an hour that was relatively reaspectable for New York and well ahead of the California sunrise. I summoned an Uber to ferry me to Sacramento Bar on the American River Parkway, a promising eBird hotspot. Even as the sun crept over the horizon, the moon was putting on a spectacular show. The newlyweds had intentionally chosen a weekend with a bold and bright lunar scene, and it delivered.

My number one target was the Phainopepla, the only new bird I could reasonably expect to find with my limited search time and radius. These silky-plumaged creatures are resident along the Parkway, but they can be difficult to track down. After some careful searching, I heard a promising whistle. An unfamiliar silhouette passed overhead further down the trail, with a long tail, gray plumage, and a Yellow-rumped Warbler in hot pursuit. I got my glass on it and confirmed a shaggy crest and faint pale patches on the flight feathers. Score. I continued to explore the extensive habitat along the water, and I was rewarded with a nice diversity of species. The brushy trailside vegetation was rich with avian activity, including confiding Spotted Towhees and Golden-crowned Sparrows.

I got distant views of a White-tailed Kite hovering over the far bank of the river, and there were several Red-shouldered Hawks and a Sharp-shin hunting on my side. I tracked down a Black-throated Gray Warbler and tallied my long overdue first Orange-crowned Warbler of the year. A far-off siren set off a chorus of confused Coyotes, yapping and howling from all directions. It was an amazingly lovely morning, but I decided to wrap it up and return home before getting the signal from my buddies. I made it back just as they were getting prepped for the day, satisfied with the successes of my solo outing.

We drove from Sacramento down to Dylan’s place in Mountain View, laughing it up all the way with stories and humorous podcasts. After some gaming and television, we brought Christian to his relative’s place for a barbecue. His family was nice enough to invite us to stick around their Portola Valley residence for the evening. I spied Steller’s Jays and Chestnut-backed Chickadees in the hillside woodlands, but I was soon distracted by delicious cocktails and a buffet of fantastic comestibles. Such hospitality! I eventually returned with Dylan and Aly to wrap up the night and crash on the couch. It was hard to say good night and good bye, but when I awoke in the predawn darkness to catch my flight I had no complaints about my getaway. The weekend was a categorical success from start to finish. Next time, hopefully I can get my friends to visit my neck of the woods!

Year List Update, October 9 – 394 Species (+ California Towhee, Yellow-billed Magpie, California Scrub-Jay, Anna’s Hummingbird, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Black Phoebe, Western Bluebird, Oak Titmouse, Acorn Woodpecker, Lesser Goldfinch, Spotted Towhee, Bewick’s Wren, Bushtit, Band-tailed Pigeon, Golden-crowned Sparrow, White-tailed Kite, Phainopepla, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, Steller’s Jay, Chestnut-backed Chickadee)

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Bunting Hunting

Despite my extensive travels throughout North America, there are plenty of birds on this continent that I haven’t seen. Some are range-restricted and only found in specific regions I haven’t yet visited. Others are relatively common but were easily overlooked by a young, inexperienced birder following his family’s itinerary. I didn’t see the ubiquitous California Towhee until my most recent visit to its home state, because it is subtle and inconspicuous compared to the charismatic A-list wildlife I sought with my limited time in the Golden State. The birds that hurt the most are the ones that my parents or siblings saw that I missed. It’s especially rewarding when I finally meet up with these sneaky species. A Calliope Hummingbird once visited the window of our broken down car while Mom and the other kids were waiting in the vehicle, 10 years before my life sighting this summer. Dad spotted both Vermilion Flycatcher and Scaled Quail on a rainy drive through Big Bend National Park, but my obstructed backseat view kept both birds off my list prior to my return to Texas in 2016. One of the first near-misses I experienced was the Lark Bunting, which Dad spotted at Badlands National Park in South Dakota back in 2003. This distinctive sparrow is a denizen of the Great Plains, and it rarely wanders beyond those borders. Every once in a while, someone gets lucky enough to find a vagrant, and last week Brent was that lucky birder.

The reports first came in on Thursday morning: a young or female Lark Bunting had been discovered at Robert Moses State Park. Adult males are black with bold white wing patches, but other age and sex classes appear very similar to more common sparrows if you don’t know what to look for. Brent noticed that the cowbird-sized creature had a large, silvery bill and distinctive pale blazes at the bend of the wing, and he was quick to get the word out. Thursday was the only day of the week that I had obligations after work holding me past dark, but I had already secured personal time off for Friday. Fortune had provided me with a chance to chase the unexpected new bird.

I got out of the house before dawn, knowing that I had a limited window of opportunity. I was pleased to hear the nocturnal flight calls of Swainson’s Thrushes overhead, and when I stopped to listen I picked out a lower, burrier call that could’ve been a Wood Thrush or a Veery. There was no question about the identity of the subsequent higher, descending vocalization that cut through the crisp air: a Gray-cheeked Thrush! Starting the day with an impressive new yard bird is hard to beat. I reached Robert Moses just after sunrise, and it wasn’t long before I was joined by a crowd of hopeful watchers. Mike Z was the first to relocate the wayward wanderer, and I enjoyed brief but satisfying looks at my latest lifer.

The bunting often went missing for long periods of time, but my morning on the barrier beach featured plenty of other nice surprises. A strong dawn flight brought hundreds of flickers, steady streams of passerines, and good numbers of raptors flying west down the shoreline. I was surprised to hear classic Dickcissel buzz calls coming from both sides of the ball court path, and even more shocked when I later found both individuals feeding on the same stalk of grass. I joined Taylor, Jessica, and Shai to watch the passing birds from the entrance road, and we were treated to a great show. A healthy-looking Red Fox that trotted past us was a welcome sight, and a quick flyby of my first-ever Red Bat was an even greater surprise.

One of the most prominent components of the dawn flight was the movement of Monarch Butterflies that we observed. The multigenerational migration of this flashy species is a spectacle to behold, and populations have declined throughout the continent. Local nature lovers have commented on the steadily decreasing numbers of Monarchs moving through our region each fall, but this year, at least, appears to have been a good one. I got up close and personal with a few roosting butterflies, and I watched countless others bravely winging their way westward throughout the morning. Even my drive home was constantly accompanied by the bright-winged insects.

As the early morning movement began to slow down, I took my leave so I could stay on schedule. The reason for my personal day lay in Ithaca, and I had to transport my friend Lauren from the airport to Cornell. On Saturday morning, we joined several other familiar faces to assist my former roommate, Ryan, with his proposal to his long-time girlfriend Paige. I was honored to be offered a part in this special event, and it was wonderful to come together with old friends in celebration of this big step forward. We spent the remainder of the weekend exploring familiar haunts and old stomping grounds. The Apple Harvest Festival on the Commons, a visit to the Ithaca Farmer’s Market, a hike at Buttermilk Falls State Park, and several stops for delicious meals and local ice cream all helped to make this unforgettable occasion even more memorable. Congratulations, Ryan and Paige! Here’s to the adventures yet to come.

Year List Update, October 1 – 373 Species (+ Gray-cheeked Thrush, Lark Bunting)

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Birding in September

The first long weekend of the school year is always cause for celebration. With Thursday and Friday off from work, I was especially excited to get out into the field. For one thing, my camera was back in one piece after the lens went missing in my own home for a few days. Additionally, the forecast called for sustained northerly winds every night of my mini-vacation, which meant conditions were ideal for migration. When I arrived at Jones on Thursday morning, I found it still closed as a precaution for Tropical Storm Jose, which had fortunately passed our region without any problematic impact. I chose not to push my luck by lingering on site. I did enjoy a brief photo shoot with a group of kestrels that were getting chased around by an aggressive Merlin. The larger falcon apparently wanted a prime perching bush all to itself, and it was quite persistent in pursuing the interlopers.

My next stop was Robert Moses, where I found Taylor and Brent observing the morning flight down the coast. We had an opportunity to catch up for a little while, noting large numbers of flickers and a smattering of other expected migrants. Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Great Cormorant, and more representatives of this year’s fantastic Cape May Warbler crop were welcome sights, but we failed to locate any Western Kingbird-tier rarities. Once the guys took their leave, I spotted a Peregrine flying in off the ocean and got closer views of some Lesser Black-backed Gulls in the lot. Overhead movement slowed down quickly, so I departed from the barrier beaches and stopped by Santapogue Creek in Babylon to say hello to the annual wintering flock of Long-billed Dowitchers.

Friday found me back at Jones, doing my best to fight off mosquitos as I explored the area. There is a lot of standing water out in the dunes this year, and the population of bloodsucking insects has exploded as a result. Spraying and swatting offered some relief, and I teamed up with Bob A to search for spots with more birds and fewer bugs. The flicker flight continued, phoebes had moved in overnight, and I was happy to hear a Dickcissel buzzing its way northwest. Bob led me to a sheltered patch of brush near the bay shore, a side trip that turned up Blackburnian, Magnolia, and Nashville Warblers.

The young Nash was especially interesting, and it struck me as just a little unusual. Its drab, first-year plumage certainly contributed to my sense of unfamiliarity, but I also noticed the bird pumping its tail as it moved about. This behavior is essentially unreported in the eastern population, but the western birds, known as “Calaveras” Warblers, love to shake their tail feathers. This subspecies pair just missed getting enough votes for a split earlier this year, so I was curious about whether they can be reliably distinguished in the field. Short answer: not really, at least not outside the breeding season. Apart from some vague descriptions of slight plumage and proportion differences to look for, the tail bobbing is all we have to go on. It’s not really a well-studied complex. I still enjoyed the excuse to do some snooping and reading thanks to my encounter with the odd little warbler.

Raptors were moving in decent numbers and diversity throughout the morning, and interspecies clashes were a common sight. One poor Cooper’s Hawk got the business from a Merlin and a Sharp-shin at the same time, lining up a shot for a neat side-by-side-by-side comparison. A few harriers, kestrels, and Ospreys were also in the mix, floating westward through a clear, blue sky.

I took a chance to relax at home on Saturday, but I still stopped by Jones in the afternoon for a short, uneventful check-in after a Curlew Sandpiper was reported. The bird dissppeared before I even left the house, but birding is all about thoroughness and taking chances. Subsequent review of photos showed that the shorebird was a tricky Dunlin, but I think most would agree with me when I say that I prefer a prompt announcement of a “maybe” over a confident proclamation that comes too late. Besides, the in-depth discussions that arise from the community ID process are great learning opportunities for birders of all ability levels. It’s all part of the fun!

After a relaxing night around the fire pit with old friends, I was back out in the field before sunrise on Sunday. Although terrestrial activity at Jones was reduced, there seemed to be some action by the water. A close kingfisher is always a treat, and the distinctive cry of a Whimbrel reached my ears while I was counting the shorebirds on the sand spit. I briefly saw the curve-billed bird flying in and subsequently hiding among the vegetation. The onslaught of biting insects eventually chased me back to my car,  but I heard a Royal Tern calling from the direction of the sandbar before I ducked inside the vehicle.

It wasn’t even 9 AM, and I didn’t want to cut my morning expedition short. I considered my options, and eventually decided to check the bar one last time for the Whimbrel and the Royal. On my way over to the docks, I bumped into Bob and Sarah, who asked if I had seen the Brown Pelicans that just went by…NO. They informed me that the birds had flown west, heading out towards the ocean. I reasoned that I might be able to catch them if I moved fast enough, so I rushed down the fisherman’s road and set up my scope at the lot. Starting from the mouth of the inlet, I slowly scanned as I swept my scope to the east. Amazingly, I managed to refind the giant seabirds resting on the water at the northern edge of the bay. I snapped some documentation images from my scope and headed back to the Coast Guard station to see if I could put anyone else on them. I arrived to find that a newly assembled crowd of birders had also found the pelicans, and we all exchanged congratulations. A few minutes later, the visitors spread their giant wings and took to the air. We watched as they circled the boat basin several times before splitting up and flying in different directions, eventually passing out of sight.

I’ve got a major soft spot for pelicans. When I was a kid, our yearly family trips to the Outer Banks were a highlight of my summer. We usually left in the wee hours of the morning, reaching the Chesapeake Bay Bridge shortly after daybreak. This was the spot where I saw my first Brown Pelicans, and I always looked forward to their appearance as a signal that we were getting close. I’ve since encountered the massive plunge divers on both coasts of the continent, but I had never seen one in my home state. I even crossed paths with their larger, paler cousins in New York before I saw their familiar faces around these parts. Most years see a few individuals discovered somewhere on Long Island, but I’m usually too far away or arrive too late. Finally catching up with these impressive creatures under unexpected circumstances was a brilliant ending to a wonderful weekend.

With the pelican show over, I was finally ready to head back to the barn. I said goodbye to my friends, got one last look at the Whimbrel when it reemerged, and returned home by way of Hempstead Lake so I could prepare my work for the week. Four days of fun were exactly what my brain needed after the stress of school resuming. You’ve got to make the most of any and all vacation time, however brief it may be!

Year List Update, September 24 – 371 Species (+ Long-billed Dowitcher, Whimbrel)

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Migrants on the Move

Despite the increased responsibilities and reduced free time resulting from a new academic year, I’ve managed to make good use of my breaks from lesson planning in the initial half of September. When I checked the weather projections at the end of my first week back, I saw that the winds were favorable for some serious migration. The latest BirdCast report predicted “heavy and locally very heavy” flights of birds on Friday and Saturday nights. I made sure that my work for the next few days was squared away so I could get out into the field bright and early.

The overnight base reflectivity radar revealed huge numbers of birds taking off all over the continent, and one of the hotspots was on track to land on Long Island in the morning. When I awoke before sunrise, I saw that the latest images showed a concentration of birds descending into Suffolk county. I chose to start my day at Robert Moses in the hopes of intercepting the migrants during their dawn flight down the coast. Fire Island’s usual suspects came out to greet me once I arrived: loafing parking lot gulls, groups of grazing deer, and a young Red Fox that darted across my path, pausing briefly to look back from the safety of cover before continuing deeper into the brush.

As expected, the numbers and diversity of birds moving west down the shoreline were fantastic. Warblers continually streamed past throughout the morning, with some individuals barely missing my head as the dove into the shrubs behind me. I tallied several hundred individuals from my vantage point, no doubt a small sample of the event’s overall magnitude. The majority of the birds I was able to identify were American Redstarts and Black-and-white Warblers, with plenty of Northern Waterthrushes, Magnolia Warblers, and Common Yellowthroats rounding out the ranks. I recorded small numbers of 6 additional species, but I have no doubts that there were many more among the masses. Non-warblers included an abundance of Cedar Waxwings, swarms of swallows, a handful of vireos and orioles, and regular appearances by Bobolinks. Merlins and kestrels patrolled the edge of the vegetation, keeping the smaller birds on alert. The highlights of my vigil were a quartet of local rarities: Red-headed Woodpecker, Dickcissel, Lark Sparrow, and Western Kingbird. All of these species are scarce but expected vagrants in our area during fall migration, and large flights offer the best odds of finding them. Encountering any of these visitors would be a high point of a day’s birding. Finding all 4 in the space of a few hours was a delight.

Wind direction and speed remained favorable well beyond nightfall, and Sunday morning found me back on the hunt at Jones Beach. There clearly weren’t as many birds passing overhead in transit, but the vegetation came to life as the sunlight began to warm the area. I found an array of warblers fluttering through the hedgerow and the foliage along the edge of the fisherman’s road, along with a Scarlet Tanager and a mystery flycatcher.

Empidonax flycatchers are notoriously difficult to identify by appearance alone. Autumnal wanderings cause many species to overlap in range, and they are not nearly as noisy as the hormonal spring migrants and breeders. Photo analysis revealed that my nondescript bird was either an Alder or a Willow Flycatcher, but without hearing any vocalizations it is all but impossible to separate these former conspecifics in the field. However, there was no mistaking the identity of a Western Kingbird that sallied out in front of me to nab a passing insect.

Shortly after the kingbird disappeared, I met up with Brendan and his friend Jacob, a Colorado native and current Chicago resident who was visiting NYC. We scanned through the hordes of shorebirds assembled on the sandbar and set about exploring the median, our guest’s state list growing by the minute. We were treated to up close and personal encounters with several Cape May Warblers, a fantastic eye-level photo opp for a species that typically forages in the treetops. Even in their duller autumn garb, these birds are probably my favorite warblers. A dapper male discovered on a high school retreat was the first uncommon member of the parulid family that I found and IDed on my own, so I’ve always held a soft spot for Setophaga tigrina. I have been fortunate enough to hear them singing on their boreal forest breeding grounds, watch them sip nectar at flowering trees in the Caribbean, and observe their passage at unforgettable migration hotspots everywhere in between. The countless fond memories that become associated with the birds we encounter are, in my opinion, the most rewarding aspect of birding.

Keeping an eye on the skies is critical during fall migration, and we were lucky enough to spot a trio of Common Nighthawks and a Caspian Tern. We checked a couple of the state park’s parking lots on our way out, turning up a resting Lesser Black-backed Gull, some lingering Boat-tailed Grackles, and a plunge-diving flock of Royal Terns. We briefly stopped by Hempstead Lake, but found the forested trails mostly quiet. Jacob, Brendan, and I parted ways, content with the successes of our searching.

Even though the conditions for night flights were far less promising on Monday, I still had bird-based plans in Manhattan. The annual Tribute in Light projected at the World Trade Center is more than a touching and powerful homage to the tragedy that struck on this site. The towering beacons illuminate the night sky, drawing in migrating birds from miles around. Photopollution can confound the travels of winged wanderers under the best of circumstances, and these massive, radiant pillars have proven to be a nigh irresistible trap. Those responsible for operating the lights are sensitive to the potential dangers the beams present to wildlife, and NYC Audubon helps to monitor the luminous columns for ensnared migrants. Many of my friends have helped to survey the Tribute over the years, recording numbers and diversity for hours on end. When enough birds are detected circling the area, volunteers notify the staff and the lights are temporarily shut off to allow the weary travelers to continue on. Lots of folks come together to make this event run smoothly, and as a New Yorker and a wildlife lover I am grateful for that.

I have never gotten a good look at the Tribute in Light, and the significance of the display along with the spectacle of nocturnal migrants convinced me to make a trip. I met up with Jacob and we spent about an hour watching from a few blocks away. At such a distance, the birds looked more like insects or twinkling stars. Species identification was impossible, but we could still make out hundreds of individuals swirling in and out of view, visible all the way to the top of the columns. The solemn gravity of the situation, combined with the impressive numbers of equally impressive creatures, made for an awe-inspiring sight. To me, the scene served as a symbol of tenacity and hope. Migrating birds and communities of humans both face our fair share of obstacles, though the natures of those difficulties are worlds apart. Every living creature has its own tale of challenges and successes, persevering despite the struggles. Through hardship and adversity, time and time again, life finds a way.

Year List Update, September 11 – 369 Species (+ Lark Sparrow, Caspian Tern)

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Feels Like Fall

For the first time in several months, I’m writing this blog post from the train on my morning commute. A new school year has begun, but this is the first academic cycle where I’ll be a full time teacher without taking any classes of my own. It’s always sad to say goodbye to summer. That being said, I’ve had a pretty great run of fun and adventures since the end of June. When I stepped off the boat after our successful pelagic trip last Sunday, I knew that I had one last week to fill with excitement before returning to work. I did my best to make the most of these last 7 days, and I succeeded.

A few opportunities for small-scale twitches presented themselves over the week. When a Red-necked Phalarope was reported at the Jones Beach ponds on Tuesday, Miriam and I made chase despite the rainy, chilly conditions. We fought the wind and wet valiantly, and we were rewarded with a look at yet another of the “must-see” birds Miriam has tabbed in her field guide. Other additions to her life list included Blue-winged Teal and Lesser Black-backed Gull, a species that is often encountered loafing in parking lot flocks along the coast at this time of year. Thursday’s quarry was an Olive-sided Flycatcher with a bonus Worm-eating Warbler at Hempstead Lake, and we managed to find both targets without much trouble. Another welcome surprise was a young Cooper’s Hawk appeared at close range while trying to avoid mobbing songbirds. The increasingly diverse array of Neotropical migrants in the forest helped to amp up our excitement for fall and ease the transition out of summer vacation.

I made a Saturday morning solo outing to Jones, where I discovered that the most abundant winged travelers were dragonflies rather than birds. Scores of the insects were circling through the area, and as I walked through the vegetation I found myself flushing a dozen or more from each plant I passed. I didn’t notice any birds taking advantage of the bounty, but I did find a Baltimore Oriole hungrily pecking at a cicada it had secured for breakfast. I picked up a Least Flycatcher for the first time in a while, along with a handful of other transit species like swallows, warblers, and Bobolinks.

I stopped by Hempstead Lake again on the way home. Overall avian activity was fairy low, highlighted by a quiet stream side stakeout where I observed several species bathing. Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Northern Waterthrush, and Canada, Black-and-white, and Magnolia Warblers were all washing themselves in the water. This peaceful pause along the edge of the creek was a restful, relaxing chance to slow down and enjoy nature.

Even though Miriam didn’t join me for my morning expedition, we still ended up doing some unexpected birding later in the day. On our way into Brooklyn to meet up with Edem and Kelsey, we were treated to a close encounter with a huge Common Raven at the Valley Stream westbound ramp for the Southern State Parkway. Once we reached our destination, we decided to explore our surroundings while we waited for our friends to join us. McCarren Park, a tiny greenspace in the heart of Williamsburg, turned out to be a fantastic migrant trap. Even without the aid of binoculars, we managed to locate a surprising variety of warblers. More than half a dozen Magnolias were observed flitting about in the low-hanging branches, joined by several American Redstarts, a Northern Parula, a Tennessee, a Black-and-white, and a drab female Cape May. Additional birds were glimpsed fluttering in the treetops, making us wish we had our optics on hand. Once our crew arrived, we enjoyed an awesome night out full of food, drink, and merriment. It was a suitable and much-needed last hurrah before returning to school.

Sunday morning found me surveying the sod farms of Riverhead in search of visiting “grasspipers.” In 2016, I had incredible luck when I visited this region to look for its specialty shorebirds. This year’s effort required a bit more work. The weather was gray, dreary, and intermittently drizzly throughout the morning. When I first arrived at Doctor’s Path, a traditional spot for birding, it hosted only a small group of Semipalmated Plovers. I checked the fields at Osborne Avenue and found them totally birdless. Continuing on to Hulse Landing Road, a recent hub of activity, I was met by a flock of Killdeer. There was no sign of my targets, but a unusual cry from overhead seized my attention. I immediately recognized the three note call as the voice of the unusual Upland Sandpiper. The Uppie was too high up and poorly lit for photos, but I managed to get a recording as it flew eastward. Seeing one of those weirdos always makes me happy.

After a few more circuits between the different sod farms, I finally located a distant pair of Buff-breasted Sandpipers at Doctor’s Path with a little advice from Tripper, who’d made the journey to Riverhead a few days prior. I called back the other birders who I’d seen earlier, including Menachem and the Fuestels, so they could get a look at the Buffies as well. I thought that I briefly glimpsed a Baird’s Sandpiper among the shorebird flocks, but I never managed to refind it and there were several confusingly brownish Semipalmated Sandpipers out there working the grass. I once again received a gift from above, however, when the quavering flight call of an American Golden-Plover echoed across the firmament. A pair of Peregrine Falcons tussling in the plowed dirt north of our location was a surprise, albeit an unpleasant one for the wary shorebirds. The Buff-breasts and many of the other species made themselves scarce when the predators arrived. Declaring my trip a success, I stopped around the corner at Briermere Farms to pick up some pie before returning home.

I slept in on Labor Day, but I had a few errands to run before the family’s evening grill-and-chill session. On my way to my grandpa’s to deliver some pie, I elected to make a detour to add a new bird to my Nassau County list. Brendan recently verified reports that a family of Wild Turkeys was hanging out on the otherwise ordinary Aerial Way in Syosset. I couldn’t resist stopping by to see the birds myself, and they did not disappoint. I first noticed a hen with several mostly-grown youngsters scratching for food along a wooded fenceline. When I turned my car around to find a better vantage point, I stumbled upon two burly toms resting in the shade of a truck across the street.

I’ve seen plenty of turkeys in my day, both on and off the table. Even though the beefed-up barnyard variety isn’t especially impressive, I generally have a lot of fun when I encounter their forest-dwelling cousins. Watching these giant fowl go about their business always makes me feel like I’m catching a glimpse back through the fog of time. The Wild Turkey is downright prehistoric in appearance and action, and its intricate, iridescent plumage clashes marvelously with its shriveled countenance. The incongruity of seeing these dinosaurian creatures casually loafing in an asphalt parking lot was equally delightful. The turkeys didn’t seem to mind my unspoken request for a photo shoot, as the poults kept foraging and the adult males both laid down to rest while my shutter clicked away. Seeing these bizarre animals so close to home was a real pleasure.

All good things must come to an end, and the summer of 2017 was chock full of good things. As I stand at the starting line for yet another school year, I can find no cause for complaint as I reflect on the adventures of the past few months. I can only hope that the rest of the year is equally rewarding and eventful!

Year List Update, September 4 – 367 Species (+ Blue-winged Teal, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Least Flycatcher, Tennessee Warbler, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, American Golden-Plover)

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Going Off the Deep End

I have been eagerly anticipating the August overnight trip to the continental shelf with See Life Paulagics since I signed up at the end of the January expedition. The final few days of waiting turned out to be a bit of an emotional roller coaster, starting on Friday morning when I awakened to a text from Brendan asking how “devastated” I would be if the boat didn’t sail. Knowing this cryptic message could only mean one thing, I braced myself as I checked the marine forecast at the Hudson Canyon. Surprise, surprise: gale force winds and seas of up to 16 feet were predicted for Sunday night into Monday. Brendan had chosen the right word for my reaction.

We discussed whether or not the trip would be rescheduled, but with Labor Day coming the next week I was concerned that the Brooklyn VI would be otherwise spoken for. After several hours of feeling sorry for myself, I got word from Mike that an email had been sent out asking who would be free if the trip moved up a day to get ahead of the weather. For some cosmically comical reason, the missive never showed up in my inbox despite my address being on the mailing list. No matter! I reached out to the trip coordinators to let them know that I was still a “yes.” Although some planned participants had to drop out due to the date change, there were plenty of eager folks on the waiting list ready to replace them. The trip was back on! I packed my things and headed into the city to meet Brendan and Anthony, who was kind enough to drive us to the docks in Brooklyn. We boarded the Brooklyn VI after sunset and set sail for the continental shelf. After catching up with Ben, Jay, and my other friends, I laid down for the night to sleep under the stars.

I’m not sure how much proper, REM sleep I got, but the rocking of the boat and the breeze off the ocean made my night on the top deck exceedingly pleasant even when lay awake. Several hours in, we hit an especially large wave which sprayed a few drops of seawater across my exposed face. I smiled, starting to drift off once more. Then it happened again. And again. Eventually the drops became a full plume of salt and mist, and every wave sent a new one washing over my sleeping bag. Our speed and angle of travel combined with the direction of the wind and water to create ideal conditions for soaking the upper level of the ship. I glanced over at the glowing phone of a fellow dampened passenger. 4 AM, close enough to sunrise that it wasn’t worth trying to sleep anymore. I pulled myself together and moved my gear to the shelter of the cabin, relocating to the leeward lower deck to wait for dawn and our inevitable slowdown.

When we finally came to a stop, the crew began to toss out chum in an effort to get a slick going before first light. Brendan pointed out a few storm-petrels fluttering through the gloom, but soon the boat lurched into motion again. Paul informed us that the sea surface temperature wasn’t as high as he was hoping for, so we headed out into the depths beyond the edge of the shelf in search of warmer water. Apparently it’s been an unusual year in our region as far as water temperature and food distribution go, and some of us began to grow concerned about our odds for successful birding. We eventually found a suitable pocket of heat about 140 miles offshore, and the chum started flying just as day began to break over the eastern horizon.

For the first few minutes after we set up shop, I was worried that we had started too late. There were no birds anywhere to be seen, and all the talk of poor conditions this summer made me nervous. We bobbed up and down as the breeze blew strongly, carrying the pungent odor of the oil and meat floating behind our boat. Right on cue, the storm-petrels began to arrive from downwind. Their powerful senses of smell led them right to the buffet we’d provided, and we watched as the tiny shadows floated over to pick their breakfast from the chum slick. The first to arrive were Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, an abundant and familiar species that is easily found just off the coast.

Every bird that passed was inspected thoroughly by the birders aboard the Brooklyn VI. Storm-Petrels are quick flyers and very similar to one another at first glance. We took great care to inspect the flock for Leach’s and Band-rumped Storm-Petrels, but both species turned out to be present in some numbers. I became acquainted with Leach’s Storm-Petrels during my time in Maine. The long-winged, fork-tailed birds bred on Eastern Egg Rock, and I was able to hear their chuckling, purring cries when they came to their burrows on dark nights. The boldness of the wing stripes and the shape of the white rump patch are some of the best ways to distinguish the Leach’s from the Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, my first lifer of the trip. Bandies also have a squarer, less notched tail and a more direct flight pattern compared to the erratic, nighthawk-like trajectory of the Leach’s. Although individuals came and went as they ate their fill, all three birds were visible at the chum slick throughout most of the day.

Early in the morning, I was watching a pair of Band-rumps approach the ship from the starboard stern. When I lowered my binoculars and prepared to point them out, I noticed a small, pale form bouncing along the waves towards us. My brain shorted out, my words got stuck in my mouth, and time seemed to stall as I heard the bird’s name shouted from all corners of the vessel: WHITE-FACED STORM-PETREL!

This creature was the primary reason I’d signed up for the August Paulagic, my number one target species on this voyage. The White-face is one of the most sought-after rarities in North America, a bucket list bird of the highest order, and it looks and behaves very differently from most of its relatives. Its method of flying is utterly unique, holding its wings out stiffly as it cruises just above the surface and pushes off the water with long legs. Birders in the United States can only hope to see this species in deep water near the Atlantic continental shelf from August to September, and there is no guaranteeing an encounter with one of these bizarre wanderers. The storm-petrel followed our slick as it ping-ponged off into the distance, disappearing just as quickly it had arrived. Satisfied by my first meeting with this dream bird, I just had to buy a celebratory cap at the end of the trip. I’ve needed a birding hat for a long time, and now that I’ve seen the stylish White-faced Storm-Petrel I feel worthy of adorning my head with its likeness.

The little storm-petrels aren’t the only birds that make their livings out on the high seas. Great and Cory’s Shearwaters were drawn to the scent of chum, and a few Audubon’s Shearwaters were spotted gliding by in the distance. I would’ve liked a closer look at the smaller black-and-white birds, but I saw enough field marks on my own to separate this latest lifer from its similar cousin the Manx Shearwater. Most of the larger birds we saw were far off on the horizon line, tracing curved paths over the swells.

While following the flight of a Great Shearwater, we noticed another bird heading towards our position. Its plumage looked broadly similar, with a dark-topped head and a white band across the base of the tail, but the way it moved put even the talented shearwater to shame. Several other birders recognized its wheeling, roller coaster flight path from afar, loudly calling out its identity as a Black-capped Petrel. Due to the cooler sea temperatures off New York compared to recent years, I wasn’t confident that we would see this rare southern soarer on our outing. We were treated to incredible views as the bird arced up above the ship, expertly riding the wind as it circled to inspect our offering of chum. Although it never stopped for a bite to eat, several more Black-capped Petrels looped around us multiple times. After a few hours of drifting and chumming, we finally headed back to the border of the shelf.

We put out a new chum slick when we reached the beautiful blue water where the continental seabed drops off. The three main storm-petrels, some shearwaters, and another Black-capped Petrel all visited us one last time before turned the boat around and charted a course for home.

I usually do my best to stay awake throughout any given pelagic trip. Nobody wants to be the unlucky birder who sleeps through an unexpected rarity encounter. Even so, my exhaustion was starting to catch up with me, and the top deck was once again drenched by spray from the oncoming waves. I decided that there was no harm in taking a nap while we passed through the relatively deserted inshore waters. The only bird of note prior to my siesta was a jaeger too distant to identify to species, and catching a few hours of rest during the afternoon certainly did my body good. After I awakened, I found that the calmer seas resulted in an inhabitable upper level. We passed a pair of flyby shorebirds shortly after I emerged, and photos revealed that they were Red-necked Phalaropes. I was offered a brew during the final leg of the trip, and I kicked back to chat with my friends and soak up the setting sun. As we approached New York City, I saw my first and only cetacean of the day: a Humpback Whale that surfaced directly in front of the Manhattan skyline.

We returned to the dock after nearly 24 hours at sea. I was completely wiped, but the full day on the water was well-worth the long hours and challenges of birding by boat. With multiple new life birds, a few more reunions, and plenty of good times with good friends, the 2017 August Paulagic was a roaring success. Special thanks to Paul, Anita, Sean, and the rest of the crew that helped bring the trip together in the face of scheduling adversity! I can’t wait for my next journey to the continental shelf in search of the species that call those deep waters home. You never know what you’ll find when you’re that far from land. Until then, I will dream of White-faced Storm-Petrels bouncing from wave to wave on their journey across the globe.

Year List Update, August 27 – 361 Species (+ Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, Leach’s Storm-Petrel, Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, Cory’s Shearwater, White-faced Storm-Petrel, Audubon’s Shearwater, Great Shearwater, Black-capped Petrel, Red-necked Phalarope)

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